Virtual Satsang

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  • Journey Into Buddhism Trilogy (the Yatra Trilogy): Just stumbled upon these gorgeous (travel) documentaries from writer/director John Bush. The cinematography is mesmerizing, and you’ll learn about Buddhism as practiced across several Asian countries. Highly recommended!
  • The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview:

    Having lived in Cambodia and China, and traveled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to fac­tor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

    Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality. Their suggestion that science does these jobs better is pretty convincing. As Harris puts it, “I am argu­ing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” I agree with Harris here and even spilled significant ink myself, back in 2001, to show that Stephen Jay Gould’s popular science/religion diplomacy of “nonoverlapping magisteria” (what many call the fact/value distinction) is incoherent. The horse­men’s mistake is not their claim that science can guide morality. Rather, they’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, eth­ics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is cer­tainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practi­tioners would even notice.

    Buddhism, for example, is about finding a form of psy­chological happiness that goes beyond the usual pursuit of fleeting pleasures. With introspection and discipline, Buddhism and other contemplative tradi­tions attempt to find a state of well-being that is outside the usual game of desire fulfillment. Bud­dhism aligns metaphysically with the new atheism and psychologically with the humanistic tradi­tions. Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite be long with the oth­er religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

    … Religion is not really a path to morality, nor can it substitute for a scientific understanding of na­ture. Its chief virtue is as a “coping mechanism” for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who wish to abolish religion seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the device for the drowning.

  • A Workout Ate My Marriage: There have to yogis and yoginis in a similar boat as the couples described in this WSJ article.

    With exercise intruding ever-more frequently on intimacy, counselors are proposing a new wedding vow: For fitter or for fatter. “Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,” says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist. Newlyweds have long recognized the risks of potential sickness, infidelity and ill fortune. But few foresee themselves becoming an exercise widow. After all, the idea that one’s beloved will take the occasional jog sounds appealing—until two miles a day becomes 10 miles, not counting the 20-mile runs on weekends.

  • What is spiritual materialism?: This old lecture, reminded me a of a recent Dharma talk (by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron), which I highlighted earlier.

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February 7, 2011 at 7:20 am

The Lust for food at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. An earlier post contained excerpts about vegetarian meals at Eiheiji. In this post, Kaoru describes what happens when monks subjected to unrelenting pressure, aren’t given enough food!

From Eat Sleep Sit, p. 172-174:

Ancient Buddhist regulations treat the act of eating as a kinds of defilement. To us at that point, eating did seem like something furtive and dirty. Unable to content ourselves with what we were offered, we were assailed by uncontrollable cravings that deeply wounded our self-respect.

… In the common quarters, informal meals are prepared by the trainee in charge, who must also prepare meals for the two adjacent residences and clean up afterward. This involves bringing in trays of dishes from the neighboring residences to be washed in the sink. Every day, several trainee monks would gather when the trays came in, and proceed to fight over the leftovers. I stood dazedly by, watching others snatch up morsels and cram them into their mouths by the fistful, feeling troubled and guilty for having seen something I should not have. To think that these were human beings — it was all inexpressibly sad.

… Once you get away with something bad, without suffering even a reprimand, it often happens that you develop a new set of values accordingly. In time, I forgot that initial sense of emptiness. Rationality didn’t enter into it. When people are locked into a world of unrelenting pressure, their sense of reason, I found is all too vulnerable. And no amount of reason could fill an empty belly. Everyone was left with that most primitive of instincts fully exposed — the lust for food.

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February 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

Posted in Meditation

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  • How to Deal with Criticism Well: 25 suggestions grouped into Personal Growth, Emotional Benefits, Improved Relationships, Time Efficiency, and Self Confidence.
  • Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks:

    … For the current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation – which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind – participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval. Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.

    … “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

    Amishi Jha, PhD, a University of Miami neuroscientist who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, says, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an 8-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amydala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Jha was not one of the study investigators.

  • States Help Ex-Prisoners Find Jobs: It took a fiscal crisis to make public officials realize that compassion and forgiveness, does make sense in certain situations.

    All told, the 50 states and the federal government spend $69 billion a year to house two million prisoners, prompting many budget cutters to see billions in potential savings by trimming the prison population. Each year, more than 600,000 inmates are released nationwide, but studies show that two-thirds are re-arrested within three years.

    “An exorbitant amount of money is dedicated to incarcerating people,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “There are ways you can go about reducing the number of people incarcerated. The best way to help them successfully integrate into society and become independent, law-abiding citizens is to make sure they get a job.”

    Pushed by faith-based organizations and helped by federal stimulus money, California, Michigan, New York and other states expanded jobs programs in recent years to give prisoners a second chance and to reduce recidivism. The nation’s overall jobless rate is 9.4 percent, but various studies have found unemployment rates of 50 percent or higher for former prisoners nine months or a year after their release.

  • Slow food meets mindfulness:

    Food can be a source of genuine pleasure and gratitude if approached in the right way, but usually we’re too busy doing other things or caught up in our own thoughts to even taste what we’re eating. (Audio below)

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January 31, 2011 at 7:54 am

In the end, just three things matter

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From Jack Kornfield on Twitter:

In the end, just three things matter: how well we have lived, how well we have loved, and how well we have learned to let go.

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January 26, 2011 at 8:36 am

Posted in Meditation, Quotes, Sadhana


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  • Dying with Confidence:
  • … Thus, meditation practice in Buddhism is actually practicing for death. You are practicing so that you can have mindfulness and clarity in that moment when you are dying, so you are confident you are prepared to use the experiences after death for the best rebirth possible—or even complete and perfect liberation.

    We must redefine the meaning of our practice so we can cultivate a feeling of rejoicing about the moment of death. If we practice hard enough in our lifetime, the experience of death will be our absolute best opportunity to have the strongest result from all of the aspirations and practices we’ve cultivated in our dharma life. If we are duly prepared, I can promise that the moment of death will be an experience of rejoicing. If we are not prepared, it will surely be a time of fear and regret. When we think about death in this light, we should feel strongly motivated to practice every day.

  • The rapping monk: Buddhist monk Kansho Tagai, a.k.a. MC Happiness, is experimenting with hip-hop in order to make Buddhism accessible to young people.

    “Getting the young people back to religion is key to Buddhism’s survival … In Japan, it’s a religion in crisis.” … Each year, hundreds of temples close in Japan and it’s a similar struggle seen by other religions around the world. Another idea that monks hope will help get more young people involved is mixing faith with fun at something called the Monk Bar. This modern day bar serves up alcoholic drinks while teaching the Buddhist mantra, according to Zenshin Fujioka. … “Twice as many people, especially the young, are now visiting the temple,” Tagai said. “Other monks are even calling me up for advice.”

  • Go easy on that incense:

    … The report in question concluded that regularly inhaling incense smoke could in fact put people at risk of cancers of the respiratory tract.

    Many Buddhist centers of course employ incense regularly: to time meditations by, and in ceremonial use. Lots of meditators use incense at home in the same ways. Incense is lovely, but a good meditation timer — or a meditation-timer CD or even an iPhone app — offers a risk-free alternative. Just a word to the wisdom-seekers.

  • The power of proper posture: This reminded me of tadasana and the Balance (Yoga) Center in Palo Alto.

    … The stand-up-straight brigade, however, often make a further claim: that posture affects the way the posturer treats himself, as well as how others treat him. To test the truth of this, Li Huang and Adam Galinsky, at Northwestern University in Illinois, have compared posture’s effects on self-esteem with those of a more conventional ego-booster, management responsibility. In a paper just published in Psychological Science they conclude, surprisingly, that posture may matter more.

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January 24, 2011 at 8:13 am

Posted in Malas, Meditation, Yoga


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  • ABC News Beliefs program: This Shambala post highlighting an ABC interview with Matthieu Ricard led me to other videos from this ongoing series from ABC news. Here are episodes featuring meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, and tensions between believers and the New Atheists.
  • The world’s disappearing food tribes: How traditional food production may offer the world a sustainable model. From this year’s Terra Madre conference:

  • Our Digital Afterlife: What happens to the bits you’ve generated and stored across many online services, after you pass away. I’ve actually been thinking about this topic a lot over the last few months. This NY Times magazine article and Forum interview (see audio below) should get more people motivated to start planning for the future of their digital assets. The services that exist at this point still seem rudimentary. For really heavy sharers (on Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.), I would love services able to produce digital biographies as well.

  • Sep/2000 Shambala interview with Jerry Brown: The interview was from a decade ago, but still, I’m hoping Jerry draws on some his past spiritual practices to govern California this time around.

    How serious would you say your engagement with Buddhism has been?

    I’d say that when I went to Japan it was very serious, because I practiced every day for six months and did four sesshins [traditional one week period of intense zazen]. This was at Kamakura; I did two sesshins under Yamada-roshi and two under Father Lasalle, a Jesuit at a Jesuit retreat house there.

    How much meditation do you do now?

    I haven’t been sitting lately, not like I should be. I have a cushion right in the middle of my room; it’s sitting there, but I’ve sat infrequently. It’s an intention, but not a strong enough intention! But definitely an intention.

    You visited Mother Theresa in Calcutta in 1987. What effect did this experience have on you?

    I spent about three weeks working there, mostly at her home for the dying, the Kalighat. I was very impressed and moved by the volunteers who came every day, by their presence and their serving attitude. People from around the world just showed up and helped bathe people, fed people, wash down the floors. It was a very good feeling to be involved in that.

    I experienced Mother Theresa as a person of really clear authority, something I hardly ever encounter. She was someone who spoke in such a way that I was inclined to listen, to follow. I felt this woman was speaking out of some enlightenment, some clarity in her way of seeing. When she said that this person lying on the floor from the streets of Calcutta is Jesus, and what you do for him, that is Jesus, well, it was not only supremely Christian, it was supremely compassionate. She manifested her being and was grounded in a way I’ve seen in very few people.

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January 17, 2011 at 7:51 am

Methods and Purpose: Vegetarian Meals at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan (Eat Sleep Sit: p. 158-159):

… I should mention here that even though the main ingredients are all vegetables, such dishes are not strictly vegan. At Eiheiji, curries and stews are made using standard commercial roux, which does contain meat products. Even so, this does not violate any Buddhist precept.

In Thailand and other countries practicing Hinayana Buddhism, which emphasize adherence to ancient precepts, monks go begging for their food. They eat whatever is placed in their begging bowl, be it meat or vegetable, without penalty. The Discipline of the Ten Chants stipulates three conditions under which it is permissible to eat meat: if you did not see the animal being killed for your consumption; if you did not hear the animal being killed for your consumption; if it is certain the animal was not killed for your consumption. As long as these three conditions are satisfied, the meat placed in Thai monks’ begging bowls may be eaten with impunity.

What really matters is the determination not to take life. In fact society is full of people who spend so much energy pursuing the means of doing something that they all lose sight of purpose. Rather than thinking about purpose, people are more attracted by, and more proficient at having various methods at their disposal. But methods that are devoid of purpose or detached from ultimate meaning will often — like war, and like development in the name of progress — lead only to disaster.

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January 14, 2011 at 7:23 am

Posted in Ahimsa, Meditation, Quotes, Sadhana

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  • Empathy, emotion, and socio-economic class: Researchers at Berkeley’s Science of a Meaningful Life, recently published a study that indicates that members of the upper-class are worse than their peers at identifying the emotions of others. Below is an hour-long interview explaining those results, and other studies on the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being.

  • Art of Faith: I”m currently watching this documentary and have enjoyed the parts I’ve seen so far. I think it was brilliant that the producers used local residents to present details about each of the structures.

  • Generosity and Greed: A Tricycle feature that includes Gelek Rinpoche, Gil Fronsdal, Kobo Daishi, Bernie Glassman, and Noah Levine.
  • Healing Yoga comes to America: I just stumbled upon this Oct/2007 Yoga International profile of Kate Holcombe, founder of the Healing Yoga Foundation. Reading A.G. Mohan’s book on Krishnamcharya has gotten me inspired to re-read Desikachar’s Heart of Yoga

    … This is how Holcombe teaches yoga—meeting the student where he is. It’s how she learned from legendary teacher T.K.V. Desikachar and why for many years she balked at being called a yoga teacher. The yoga she discovered in India 16 years ago bore little resemblance to the fitness phenomenon labeled yoga in the United States. “I used to call it the ‘y’ word,” she says. “It took me a long time to be comfortable saying that what I was doing was yoga because what I was studying and learning and seeing and doing in India felt so completely different from what I saw people calling yoga here.”

    What Holcombe saw in India was yoga as practiced at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram (KYM), the school Desikachar founded in 1976 to honor his father, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya, who died in 1989 at the age of 100, is the reason a discipline of sages in caves is today practiced by celebrities in spandex. His famous stunts (stopping his heartbeat) and students (B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Indra Devi among them) turned the masses on to yoga, even as Krishnamacharya stressed that yoga’s healing powers reside in the one-on-one relationship between teacher and student.

    Desikachar’s school is in Chennai, a muggy, conservative city formerly known as Madras. The Mandiram functions less like a yoga studio than a health clinic. There’s a waiting area lined with chairs. There’s a blue file on each student. The 50 teachers see students one at a time in small rooms with walls of braided palm fronds. An exception is made for couples having trouble conceiving.

    Many of the students have no prior yoga experience. They learn movements, breathing techniques, chants, meditative practices, and habits to ease their pains and strengthen their psyches. Everybody gets a unique practice. A depressed student might be asked to snap photos of beautiful things. Another might be encouraged to eat papaya.

    The Desikachars emphasize that yoga is a complement to medical care, not a replacement. About half of the Mandiram’s students are referred by a doctor or other health professional. The head of neurophysiology at Chennai’s largest hospital sends his son to the Mandiram for a neurophysiological problem. When Holcombe began teaching a decade ago, she worked in the office of a family practitioner who’d been a longtime Desikachar pupil. She has since taught at physicians’ retreats and conferences, and word of mouth has brought her so many students that until this year, she’d never printed a business card.

    … Yoga as the Desikachars see it is a toolbox for conscious change. Ancient yoga texts proffer myriad tools—from cleansing rituals to candle gazing to arm balances that evoke Cirque du Soleil. Many yoga therapists, Kausthub says, reach into the toolbox and pull out hammer and nails: asana and pranayama. The rest of the tools go largely unused.

    “Most yoga therapy in the West addresses yoga therapy through the body—asanas. Sometimes they include some breathing techniques, but nothing else,” he says. “Here, we are including every tool in yoga practice, whether it is asana or pranayama or meditation or chants and visualizations.

    “Yoga has been presented in the classical teachings as a holistic discipline. Yoga has not been presented for the body, through the body, by the body.”


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January 10, 2011 at 7:55 am

Posted in Health, Malas, Meditation, Yoga


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  • Buddhists in the US Military: Heart and Soul on how the US Military struggles to accomodate minority religions. Some Buddhist countries (e.g., Thailand) have robust militaries, so military service among Buddhist practitioners is “possible”. The challenge faced by non-Christians in the US Military is the large and vocal contingent of Evangelical Christians.

  • Healthy Alternative to China Gel: China Gel is popular among yoga practitioners, I myself have come to appreciate it.

    After a cardio-sculpt class involving repeated lunges with hand-weights or when I’ve had one asana too many, the last thing I want to slather on my aching body is China Gel.

    I realize that sounds kind of sacrilege, since China Gel’s considered the muscle remedy of choice at many New York City gyms and yoga studios. I can see why it’s popular: The topical pain reliever has a handful of ingredients that make sense—like menthol and ginseng. But it has way too many ingredients that don’t, like Triethanolamine (a skin, immune system, and respiratory toxin), DMDM Hydantoin (a formaldehyde releaser), and dyes like Blue 1 (CI 42090) and Yellow 5.

  • Mimi Silbert on Delancey Street’s rehabilitation model: As Jerry Brown starts his term as Governor of California, I’m hoping he listens to experts like Mimi Silbert. A SF success story, Delancey Street is now found in five other US cities.

    We take applications from people who have hit bottom, from prison, jail or walk-ins. Residents who have been at Delancey Street awhile interview all applicants. The minimum stay is 2 years; the average stay is 4 years. We have 3 rules: no drugs or alcohol, no physical violence, and no threats of violence. The goal is to learn to lead a productive crime-free, drug-free life of purpose and integrity. Everyone learns a marketable skill (the goal is 3 skills), and earns at least a high school equivalency degree. Advanced education is available.

    Silbert on Options for Dealing with Criminal Offenders:
    “I am going to describe two options. One option: you get put somewhere where you don’t have to work, where you don’t learn anything, where the government – the taxpayer – pays $40,000 to $50,000 dollars. Here’s the second option: the government pays nothing, you have to wake up at 7:00 am, you have to work eight hours a day, you must get educated, you must volunteer in the community… Which would you rather see?”

  • Thought-full Meditation: I’ve written about the scandal which engulfed Sally Kempton’s guru in the past, and I still haven’t found any indication that she’s distanced herself from some quotes attributed to her in the midst of it. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading her columns in the Yoga Journal! From the Feb/2011 issue:

    From the Yoga Vasishta text of high Vedanta: “Consciousness plus thoughts is the mind, Consciousness minus thoughts is God.”

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January 3, 2011 at 6:27 am

On Compassion

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Happy New Year to all! Here are a couple of quotes on compassion, to get your 2011 off on the right footing:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. (from the Dalai Lama)

If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete. (from the Buddha)

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January 1, 2011 at 9:09 am

Posted in Meditation, Quotes


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